Tag Archives: historical context

“ODBODY’S AXIOM”–WHAT “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” CAN TEACH US ABOUT THINKING HISTORICALLY

It's a Wonderful Life IIDo Americans still watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas time? I used to think that everyone was familiar with it, at least, but now I’m not so sure. I met a woman in church the other day who is “old enough to know better”—that is how my dad used to categorize anyone his age or older—and she stunned me by confessing that she has never seen this holiday classic. In case you haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it. It’s a heartwarming, even inspiring story, but its real value is in how it teaches us to think historically. As effectively as any movie I’ve seen, it drives home the importance of historical context.

Historical context is critical to historical understanding for one basic reason: none of us lives in a vacuum. Humanly speaking, our lives are influenced (not determined, but profoundly influenced) by what has gone before us. Indeed, if there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.

Historians sometimes try to make this point by comparing history to an enormous, seamless tapestry. (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.) Although it’s possible to extract a single thread and examine it, it’s in contemplating the larger pattern that we can best understand the purpose and significance of the individual fibers. In sum, the particular makes little sense without reference to a larger whole. Similarly, when wrenched from its historical context, an isolated historical fact may intrigue or entertain us (good for crossword puzzles or Jeopardy), but it has nothing meaningful to teach us.

The bottom line is simple:

Know context, know meaning. No context, no meaning. 

But not everyone finds it easy to relate to a textile analogy. (Go figure.) This is where It’s a Wonderful Life comes in. Hollywood rarely aids the life of the mind–and in truth, the movie’s theology is really messed up–but when it comes to the importance of historical context this film gets it right.

It-s-A-Wonderful-Life-its-a-wonderful-life-32920425-1600-1202To begin with, the very structure of the movie teaches that context is indispensable to understanding. In case you don’t know the plot, the story begins on Christmas Eve, 1945, as countless prayers waft toward heaven on behalf of the protagonist, down-on-his-luck George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. In response, the senior angels Franklin and Joseph call for George’s guardian angel, an “angel second-class” named Clarence Odbody, played by the marvelously eyebrowed Henry Trevor.

Clarence appears immediately, and when Franklin and Joseph explain that someone on earth (George) is seriously contemplating suicide, Clarence offers to rush immediately to his aid, but his mentors stop him short with a sharp rebuke. “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him,” Joseph scolds, and for the next hour and a half they provide Clarence with historical context for the present crisis. All told, fully two-thirds of the movie consists of flashback, powerfully driving home the message that we can’t comprehend any moment in time without knowledge of what has preceded it.

Its a Wonderful Life VIIBut not everything that has gone before will be relevant. In briefing Clarence, Franklin and Joseph practice what one historian calls the principle of selective attention. Rather than overwhelm Clarence with a flood of facts, they choose the events and circumstances in the past that have been most influential in shaping the man George has become. In turn, this helps Clarence to comprehend what George’s current circumstances mean to him.

In reviewing George’s life, furthermore, the senior angels also remind us that our lives unfold within multiple contexts. Some of the circumstances that they review are intimate details quite specific to George, for example his rescue of his brother Harry or his longstanding yearning to see the world and build modern cities. Others grow out of George’s family context, for instance the centrality of the family savings and loan business or his father’s decades-long struggle with “old man Potter.”

Both categories involve the kind of personal pasts we preserve and pass on in conversation around the dinner table without realizing that we are functioning as historians. But George’s life was also touched by distant, much less personal developments that affected the entire nation or even the world–the kind of events that get into textbooks and which we instantly recognize as “historical.” So, in the flashback we see how George’s past intersected with events such as the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919, the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the Second World War.

It's a Wonderful Life VFinally, the movie points us toward a bedrock truth about the human condition that explains why context is always important to historical understanding. If Clarence is initially mystified as to why it should be important, by the movie’s end he understands fully and expresses the underlying principle with eloquent simplicity. After showing an incredulous George that the world would have been starkly different if he had never been born, Clarence muses, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. . . .”

Clarence’s insight into the unlimited interrelatedness of human experience–we could call it Odbody’s Axiom–is at the heart of all sound historical thinking.

KNOW CONTEXT, KNOW MEANING (American Revolution #4)

Let’s return to the American Revolution. In a previous post on my American Revolution course at Wheaton College, I explained that I never begin a course by immediately diving into the subject matter. I like to think out loud with my students about what we are going to be doing, and why it might be important to us. We start with a series of foundational questions that it’s good to revisit regularly: What is history? What does it mean to think historically? Why study history at all? These are basic questions, but far from simple.

We then turn to the even harder question of what we might have to gain from a disciplined engagement with the past. One of my favorite quotes in this regard comes from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who challenges us to believe that “there will always be gifts to be received from the past.” To be educated is to be transformed, and I want my students to be open to the possibility of transforming knowledge.

After devoting two full weeks to these building blocks, we finally turn to content, but not exactly to the content I think my students are expecting. The second section of the course is entitled “Setting the Stage,” and it is meant to embody one of the most fundamental axioms of historical thinking, namely, the crucial importance of context.

Historical context is crucial to historical understanding for one basic reason: none of us lives in a vacuum. Waxing poetic, historians sometimes liken human history to an enormous, seamless tapestry. (Imagine the wall of a European castle here.) Although it is possible to extract and examine a single thread, it is in contemplating the larger pattern that we can best understand the purpose and significance of the individual fibers. In sum, the particular makes little sense without reference to a larger whole. Similarly, when wrenched from its historical context, an isolated historical fact may intrigue or entertain us (good for crossword puzzles or Jeopardy), but it has nothing meaningful to teach us. No context, no meaning. It’s that simple.

So if we want to understand the causes and meaning of the Revolution to American colonists, we want to place the events that get into the textbooks—the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the shots fired on Lexington Green—into the larger fabric of their lives. To understand what these events meant to colonists, we need to know more about how they looked at the world. Candidly, many of the popular writers who get caught up in debates about the American founding don’t take the time to do this, and their understanding suffers. Among other things, serious engagement with the past requires time, patience, and a willingness to postpone judgment while we try to make sense of what we encounter.

As we search for understanding, we’ll need to grapple with context in two dimensions. We will want to know what was going on at the same time as the highly publicized political events that we tend to remember. We will also need to investigate what had gone on before those events—maybe even long before.

To illustrate the former, I ask my students to read a chapter from a much acclaimed academic work published during the bicentennial of the Revolution, The Minuteman and Their World, by Robert A. Gross. The author’s goal was to understand the patriots who fought with British soldiers at Concord, Massachusetts in April 1775, to transform them from two-dimensional “minutemen” into three-dimensional fathers and sons leading complex lives. He spent years of painstaking research aimed at recreating life in Concord, so that the exchange of shots at Concord Bridge would not be an isolated moment forever frozen in time, but an episode in the unfolding story of a living, changing community.

Gross

Toward this end, Gross asked all kinds of questions that we might not automatically think are pertinent to understanding the origins of American independence: How did the townspeople earn their livings? What did their work involve? What did they eat and wear? What was the dynamic within the household and between generations? How long did they typically live in Concord? Where did they come from? Why did they leave and where did they go if they left? What did they read? What did they say in town meetings? What did they hear from the pulpit? Who served in the town militia? How were they affected by events outside of Concord? The list goes on.

But understanding the world of Concord also required Gross to delve deeply into Concord’s past prior to 1775. How could he fathom the significance of the patterns he discovered if he had no sense of how they related to the arc of change and continuity across generations? Humanly speaking, our lives are influenced (not determined, but profoundly influenced) by what has gone before us. Indeed, if there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.

The Minutemen and Their World was republished in 2001 in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition. It came with a new set of fascinating reflections by the author, who explained his fascination with the Revolution as well as how his understanding had evolved in the intervening quarter of a century. This edition is still in print, and it is well worth your time. If you decide to read Minutemen, however, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that Concord was somehow a microcosm of the thirteen colonies, which it definitely wasn’t. With that caution, Gross’s book is a masterful example of a historian’s attention to context and a marvelous illustration of why context is essential to understanding.